Syria Turmoil Exposes Rifts Among Arab Intellectuals

5:40 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

 AMMAN, Jordan — When the Arab Spring reached Jordan last year, a newspaper columnist, Muwafaq Mahadin, was one of the first to march with protesters demanding reforms in his country.
He also backed Syrian demonstrators who began taking to the streets in March 2011. But a few months later, he made an about-face, aligning with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Like many other Arab intellectuals, he says he did so out of fear for the future of the region.
“This is a corrupt, undemocratic police state, but what is going on is not a war in Syria but a battle by outside players for Syria,” he said in an August interview in an office at the Writers Union building in Amman.
Mr. Mahadin, a prominent opposition figure who writes for the independent Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, has extensive pro-democracy credentials. He was arrested several times for his political views and was even forced to flee the country for a decade, living in exile between Beirut and Damascus.
These days some revile him as a conspiracy theorist while others call him courageous. Regardless, his columns fuel heated debate among Jordanian intellectuals.
Over the years he spent in Damascus, Mr. Mahadin built strong ties with the Syrian opposition. He says the revolt in Syria was initially a spontaneous uprising of the street but was later hijacked by international powers.
Mr. Mahadin is just one of a number of leftist, anti-imperialist intellectuals who believe that the Syrian rebellion is being led by Islamists aligned with the West, manipulated by Ggulf states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the behalf of the United States and Israel, in order to gain dominance in the region.
A group of 230 influential figures have signed an open letter in the press demanding that Jordan stand with Syria in the face of a global conspiracy.
“We particularly appreciate the perseverance of the Syrian leadership in keeping the pace of reforms and adhering to dialogue despite mounting terrorist acts against Syria — despite the inflammatory media campaigns by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the West, and despite interventions that are contrary to international law — evidenced by the smuggling of money and various weapons into Syria,” the statement read.
Mr. Mahadin says that the conflict taking place in Syria echoes the Cold War, with rebels being funded and armed — just as Islamist mujahedin fighters were — by the West to fight Soviet control of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
“I have felt duty-bound to hold the Syrian regime responsible for its role in crisis, especially when I consider the way the regime has taken the country to a point where it has ended up with streets and walls covered in blood,” Mr. Mahadin wrote in a July column in Al-Arab Al-Yawm. “Yet every time, I felt the need to write about that, the voice of the conspiracy and the fact of the foreign intervention has overpowered this desire and need.”
Mr. Mahadin traveled to Syria last year on a special visit to express solidarity with the Assad regime and wrote a series of columns accusing the international media of lying about what was transpiring there.
In August 2011, he disputed reports on satellite channels that Homs was surrounded by tanks, saying that he passed through the city without seeing a single tank. That same year, he offended a group of Jordanian artists protesting in Amman by concluding a speech with the rallying cry, “Long live Bashar!”
According to François Burgat, a senior research fellow specializing in Middle Eastern Politics at the French National Center for Scientific Research, Mr. Mahadin’s analysis of the Syrian conflict understates the strength of the popular revolt while overstating international influences.
In this view, he said, “the armed opposition is reduced to Islamist groups of mercenaries recruited or funded by the oil monarchies at the service of their Western allies. These secular Marxists dislike the fact that the forces of resistance recruit among ‘Islamists.”’
Mr. Burgat believes that leftist intellectuals, who support Mr. Assad, are giving in to an old Arab temptation of preferring to retain an authoritarian regime rather than risking increasing Islamist influence in a new government as has happened in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
These conflicting viewpoints on Syria have buffeted the pro-democracy efforts in Jordan, creating a division within the opposition movement there, according to Lamis Andoni, another prominent Jordanian columnist, who is of Palestinian descent.
Ms. Andoni says that while there are legitimate concerns over the impact on the wider region should the Assad government fall, this cannot justify support for a regime that kills civilians.
“Many people have supported the Syrian regime because of its important role in the region in countering Israeli expansionism,” she said.
“But the moment the Syrian people rose, the claim to support it because it is a resistance state is no longer valid. It does not give the state the right to kill its own people.”
Mr. Mahadin is not alone. Joseph Massad, who teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York argues that throwing out a dictator with the help of foreign allies is always a bad idea.
Ziad Majed, a professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris, says that it is legitimate for Syrians to aspire to end a regime that has governed brutally for more than four decades.
“Assad should depart and a transition should take place,” Mr. Majed said. “Discussions over international and regional politics can be legitimate and necessary. But they can also be no more than an excuse to defend a despotic regime and to close one’s eyes in front of an ongoing massacre.”
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees, who have fled the fighting in their homeland, want whatever help they can get. When Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France visited Al Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, at the Syrian border, in mid-August, refugees held a protest asking France to come to the rescue of Syrian civilians.
“It’s nice to know you stand with us but it’s not stopping the massacre,” shouted a refugee during the French official’s visit. “We don’t want humanitarian help, we want rocket launchers and weapons.”

 Read the story on the New York Times' website.

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